How ESPN And EA Turned Madden Ratings Into A Week Of Debate

Madden ratings have always mattered, but never quite to the level they do now. Between fans reacting on social media, players making the case for why their rating should be higher, the celebration of joining the 99 Club, and an entire week dedicated to them on ESPN, ratings take over the conversation around football this time of year. There’s so much conversation that even the developers of Madden themselves can’t help but notice when places like ESPN are talking about their game.

“It’s always awesome that so many people pay attention to our ratings,” Madden ratings adjuster Clint Oldenburg says to UPROXX. “It’s fun. But I think that it’s also really, really important for a lot of people. It’s the conversation people [want to] have when the NFL’s ready to kick off.”

While it may be a little weird for some to see ESPN personalities like Mina Kimes and former athletes such as Chad Johnson on TV discussing Madden ratings, in reality, this has been a long time coming and it started with a Jacksonville Jaguars training camp of all places.

“The team was seen at a Jacksonville Jaguars training camp” Joe Fraler of EA Sports told UPROXX. “All of a sudden some pictures of the team went viral and people start speculating if this job is actually real and ESPN being, you know, a world leader in sports really started kind of dig into that narrative.”

ESPN’s interest in the ratings discussion ended up sparking a full E60 story about how ratings are created, the work that goes into them, and how it’s far more than just slapping a random number on them. This is a job that requires hours of pouring over tape, numbers, and really digging into the intricacies of football. Considering that Madden was not only the highest-selling sports game of 2020 but the fourth-highest overall, there is an obvious interest in how these ratings are created.

“We were really just fascinated about the process and the algorithms that they use, and the metrics and just how involved it was,” Andy Tennant of ESPN said to UPROXX. “And so we were given the opportunity by EA to take cameras behind the scenes and that they actually have several developers who meet in the conference room and who diligently review NFL tape and specifically gear in on players…whether it’s speed, agility, power, etc, to ultimately arrive at these at these ratings.”

That interest has led to what is now ratings week. An entire week dedicated by ESPN to break down the latest Madden ratings from lineman to quarterbacks, and it’s not just their own personalities weighing in on the discussion. Former players like Marshawn Lynch and Ed Reed are bringing in their own take as well. Surprised to see athletes caring about how they’re presented in a video game? Don’t be. There might be nobody who cares about ratings in Madden are more than the NFL players themselves. Some see it as a sign of respect, while others just want to be as portrayed as accurately as possible, and they’ll go to great lengths to tell EA why their ratings should be presented a certain way. The earlier mentioned Jaguars training camp? The reason EA was there in the first place was that Leonard Fournette had an issue with his own ratings and wanted to be removed from the game entirely! Never say players don’t care about this stuff.

While Fournette’s reaction went viral, it also goes to show the kind of stress that the developers can go through when working on these games. Get something “wrong” in the eyes of the player or fans and they’re going to hear about it. However, while Fournette may have not been too happy, there was a reason for why his rating may have been lower than he expected. Madden is a results oriented game and they can’t just project what they think is going to happen. They have to react to what they’ve seen, and even though Fournette was coming off a strong rookie season, his body of work was only that, a rookie season.

“It really depends on the body of work that we have available to us our stance for the younger players especially the rookies has been prove it.” Oldenburg says. “It’s kind of like how in video game production we have this saying, pitch it, perform it, and prove it and it’s really no different for rating players. If you don’t have a long body of work, we’re not going to overreact… We’re going to need to see it over multiple years.”

Of course, for developers like Oldenburg, the goal is to create the most accurate ratings possible. For the rest of EA it’s about taking those ratings and promoting them in ways that are fun and interesting. While partnering with ESPN on ratings week is one way, another is to celebrate the truly great players. That’s how something like the 99 Club was born, an exclusive group of players that are either rated or were once rated a 99 in Madden.

“We saw a lot of commentary on social with the athletes debating over who should actually get [a 99,]” said Fraler. “And to help shine a light on these guys that are part of the inaugural class each year we decided to take it up a notch.”

“By and large you’re going to need multiple years of doing it at the highest level against the best competition…We very closely pay attention to individual matchups, and who these guys are playing on a weekly basis,” Oldenburg said. “And so if you look at Davante Adams, you know, over the course of last year and even the previous year it didn’t really matter who was covering him he was still very effective. Nobody really was able to take him away even the best corners and so that speaks volumes as well…But, you know, ultimately, if you’re a fan of football or fan of Madden, and in most cases, both, I think we all have a pretty good sense of who really belongs in the 99 Club, each and every year.”

Would EA’s developers like it if everyone just agreed with their ratings and called it a perfect video game? Absolutely, but everyone knows that no matter how accurate the game actually is there will always be people disagreeing with those ratings. Especially players. That’s where ESPN comes in. To join that conversation, because at the end of the day these ratings are just another form of debate as we wait to see actual football games being played.

“It’s not just about how an individual player react to his rating, whether it’s where he thinks it should be.” says Tennant. “Whether it’s not high enough, or whether it’s too low, it’s also about once that player reacts, there’s then the domino effect of the fans reacting to the players reaction. So this in essence becomes a communal experience. And that’s what we’re all about. We think Madden ratings week is a communal experience and it’s a chance to bring players and fans together to have intense debate about what a player was able to garner in terms of a rating from Madden.”